The U.S. Surgeon General calls the new surge in coronavirus infections and deaths a Pearl Harbor moment. A perfectly wrong comparison. The attack on Pearl Harbor came almost completely without warning.
It was September 2001, nine days after the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, and Dick Cheney got a briefing in his office that seems to have convinced him that even the hijacked airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could have been worse. They could have been something America was even less prepared for – a terrorist attack using a smallpox virus to create a national health emergency.
“This is terrifying,” Cheney said of the nightmare scenario called Dark Winter and the gaps it pointed to in the ability of the American healthcare system to respond to a national-scale medical crisis.
Terrifying government officials with threats of national epidemics and global pandemics has become something of a specialty at The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security which held conferences in which top medical experts warned high government officials that a world of murderous pathogens lurked like a warehouse of explosives just waiting for a match. Journalist Mark Perry listed them in Foreign Policy starting with the 2005 “Atlantic Storm” which simulated an international outbreak of a smallpox pandemic.
In recent years, the Center for Health Security conference narrowed its focus; to warn specifically about a pandemic caused by a new coronavirus. In a 2017 conference scenario, Perry writes, “tested medical responses to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Clade X,” in 2018, proposed a worldwide coronavirus outbreak with no vaccine, and in October 2019, [there was] “Event 201.”
“In recent years,” the description of the Event 201 exercise begins, “the world has seen a growing number of epidemic events, amounting to approximately 200 events annually. These events are increasing, and experts agree that it is only a matter of time before one of these epidemics becomes global.”
What will be needed to respond, the conference document says, will be “cooperation among industry, national governments, key international institutions, and civil society, to avoid the catastrophic consequences that could arise from a large-scale pandemic.”
Cooperation among American states as well as national governments and international institutions has been scant during the Trump Administration’s management of the Covid-19 crisis and White House communications with private industry and the public have been confusing, contradictory and often counter-productive.
But not just think tanks have been warning for years that America was unready for a national – much less a global – medical crisis. Inside government, Pentagon planners have been pushing same alarm buttons as the Hopkins Health Security team. Byaaap! Byaaaap! Go the sirens. Silence has been the response. Silence and inaction. And here we are.
Ken Klippenstein is The Nation‘s DC Correspondent. His reporting focuses on the machinations of the American national security state and documents under-the-radar politics and policies enacted by the Trump administration.
In the past month, he has obtained leaked internal documents revealing how the coronavirus is giving Trump extraordinary powers to actively surveil and detain individuals; how the crisis made its way into border detention facilities; and how Trump is using the coronavirus to militarize the border.
Klippenstein was previously senior investigative reporter for The Young Turks, and a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast. His reporting has been referenced by countless outlets and cited by Congress.